I always found it hard to like Bob Hawke, even as I had come to recognise him as the most effective prime minister I saw in nearly five decades of writing about Australian politics. One had to give him credit for leadership, of a sort, and achievement and, very practically, winning four elections in a row. He, and many voters, revelled in the idea of a special relationship with each other. With some of my friends too - but his charms were wasted on me.
Half of those who will vote today never had the opportunity to vote for or against him. Several million Australians now on the electoral rolls were not alive when he was prime minister. But most will have heard of him, even seen him barracking for Labor in his retirement. It was 28 years ago that he was deposed by Paul Keating, the partner in his successes but who ultimately got tired of waiting for Hawke to keep his promise to retire in Keating's favour. Like John Howard, Hawke could not be convinced that Keating could win an election he couldn't. By now Keating is almost as popular in the Labor pantheon.
There are Liberals these days who insist that Hawke had it easy because they supported his great economic reforms. It was not so obvious then - indeed, as now, Coalition campaigns against the Hawke-Keating government warned that it was taking us to hell in a handbasket, that it had secret agendas for taxes that never did eventuate, and that it was ruinously profligate with spending on health, education and welfare.
But even Hawke's enemies, in the Coalition and in his own party, are now inclined to be generous to a leader who played a significant role in public affairs for more than 30 years, who made lasting changes to the management of the economy, to Labor doctrine about coping with private enterprise and with markets, and who opened Australia to a new era of operating in the international economy. John Howard, who also won four elections, was in fact prime minister for a longer period. But he cannot be said either to have transformed the nation in the way the Hawke government did, or to have changed its sense of itself. Howard, too, had a great feel for the national mood, with a similar enthusiasm for sport (if not for gambling). But no one would ever claim that he and the electorate had a special relationship.
Hawke was a giant, but he stood on the shoulders of other giants. He seemed good because he had a very good team alongside him, and because he had uncommon skills at getting the best out of them. He had his own contributions to make, but they were never as important as his capacity to harness the genius of others.
It's a point worth remembering today when the contest is between a person who has campaigned presidentially, almost as a loner almost separate from his party, against someone who has emphasised the team, his party's traditions and a continuity of objectives going even past Hawke to Gough Whitlam, to Ben Chifley and John Curtin, two of the giants Hawke revered. Evoking Hawke, yesterday and today, can only help Labor.
When Paul Keating was in the process of falling out with Hawke after an effective partnership of eight years, he commented gloomily in a soon-leaked "off-the-record" address to a 1990 press gallery dinner that Australia had never had a leader of the calibre of a Washington, Lincoln or Roosevelt, and remarked that "leadership is not about being popular".
"It's about being right and about being strong," he said.
It was a hit at Hawke, and his increasing unwillingness to risk any of his popularity on Labor causes in which Hawke had no emotional investment. But it was also a hit at Hawke's heroes. The charge against Hawke was that he had become comfortable in power, and was leaving the slogging and the announcement of unpopular decisions to Keating, a man who had never had the inside run at power that he thought Hawke had had.
Keating once described Hawke as being forever "in and out of the cat's arse", by which he meant, I think, that he was too much influenced by the last person who had flattered him. [Strictly, the phrase, applied to a duck's rather than a cat's bum, meant he was obsessively interested in unimportant detail, but I don't think Keating would ever have accused the great communicator of that. Hawke's forte was not detail, but a facility for communicating with ordinary Australians.]
Bill Shorten was a frank fan, and other than Simon Crean, the successor most steeped in Labor's industrial side. But unlike Hawke, he has not been able to campaign on his reputation or popularity, instead focusing, Whitlam-like, on having a program. But Hawke had a program too, even if it did not prove to be his lodestar. The Liberals, by contrast, have been leery of programs since Keating's defeat of John Hewson in 1983, tending to concentrate their campaigns on simply not being Labor, chiefly by being economically prudent and unadventurous. Perhaps it's less risky, but it can rarely inspire or promise a transformed polity.
One can remember Bob Hawke nostalgically as the leader of a steady and united government, durable as well as achievement-focused, and in marked contrast to the turnover, turmoil and ineffectiveness of most of the past decade. But one can overdo the nostalgia.
Bob Hawke's personality was often nasty and repellent, even though he finally abandoned, on becoming prime minister, the drinking that made it particularly obvious. He was a spiteful drunk, and often spiteful sober. His raucous conduct and enjoyment of life made him seem a larger-than-life Australian, but it was not always so attractive at first hand. His conduct, as ACTU leader and even prime minister, frequently humiliated his wife and children, who spent a good deal of their lives estranged from him.
He was too close to some big businessmen, whom he treated as father figures, and who sometimes seemed to bail him out financially. The big drinker had short pockets at the pub and, at least by reputation, a propensity to not pay up when he lost a bet.
His vanity and arrogance were, even by the standards of narcissism and conceit among other politicians, of towering height. I doubt we shall see their like again. He could sometimes, rarely, make a self-deprecating joke about himself, but had no sense of irony if anyone else did. I always thought his reaction to any assault on his self-regard for his purity of motive was of national-security-risk standards: accuse him of bad faith and he would not only lose his temper and (sometimes) his judgment, but reveal documents and facts he probably should not have so as to acquit himself of the slur.
One good example might be his response to Richard Carleton when asked, after the political assassination of Bill Hayden in 1983, whether he had blood on his hands. Though he was wise, with excellent judgment on issues in which he was not emotionally invested, staff had to work to curb his impulses when he was.
A good prime minister does not have to be likeable, least of all to journalists. Yet I have always thought personal as much as public character critical, and still consider him, in that sense, our least worthy post-war national leader after Billy McMahon. That did not seem to hamper his genuine success in politics, his achievement on the national and international stage, or his enduring popularity. He may not have been a great person, but he was a great man. His personality, good and bad, was a major factor in his success.
He was a very effective chairman, with an uncommon capacity to lead people into consensus. I doubt any Australian prime minister ever had a cabinet of more able ministers, but the fact that they worked as a team, rather than individualists, was all down to Hawke. All the more so given that many of his most able ministers did not much like or respect him personally, even as they recognised his remarkable abilities to lead and to win the confidence of Australians.
Nor was that merely a matter of being able to run a meeting and draw the threads together so that he, and the team, were united about the outcome in view, and the narrative that was to accompany it. He was also a very effective manager of individual ministers, and was willing to delegate and trust them. They were practical politicians, uncommonly focused on national interest outcomes as well as the government's survival, so that mere clash of personalities or personal enmity only rarely interrupted the processes of good government. Few of his ministers were there simply for their pensions.
He may not have been a great person, but he was a great man. His personality, good and bad, was a major factor in his success.
Best of all, from the national interest point of view, was the way in which the prime minister gave a fairly free rein to most of his ministers, leaving most of the detail to them so that he could concentrate on the big picture, the key problems of government, and the broad job of maintaining the relationship with the electorate.
Yet he had very good political antennae, and his private staff and the senior bureaucracy were constantly on the alert for early evidence that a project was going wrong, a minister was off the rails, or that events were overtaking what had been thought sound policy. His political advisers did not hesitate to tell him, at least in private, what they really thought; other personal staff were uncommonly well networked into the administration, the lobbies, the media and big business. Only rarely, with junior ministers whom he liked, such as John Brown, did Hawke let sentiment override a ruthless practicality.
Hawke did not come to office as an apostle of economic reform, of loosening up the economy, and the currency, to accommodate markets and Australia's changing trade circumstances, or of privatisation and public service doctrines of letting the managers manage. Had he done so, he might have struggled to get the Labor leadership, let alone the electorate's endorsement. He campaigned against Malcolm Fraser with the argument that the Fraser regime had seen an upsurge of social conflict and tension, and that Fraser used the politics of division to get his way.
He, by contrast, was going to be the great reconciler, the person who would get things moving by trying to create harmony rather than friction. Soon after being elected, he said, he would convene a great conference of business and unions to discuss and agree to a general social and economic strategy.
Hawke was still chiefly known to the public as the former head of the trade union movement, but he had stage-managed matters so that he usually appeared to save the day only after serious industrial confrontation, lamentation from industry, and public inconvenience. When he appeared it was often at just the psychological moment for everyone to step back a little, and to compromise on initial positions. But if Hawke seemed the saviour of the hour, it was not by sheer opportunism or timing, but a very profound understanding of the issues and the scope for compromise.
The impetus for becoming, with Keating, the transformer of the economy, came, first, with the discovery that Fraser's treasurer, John Howard, had left a significant "black hole'' in the national accounts, one that he and Fraser had been at great pains to conceal from the public. Not for the last time, Treasury secretary John Stone showed his lack of regard for Howard in ensuring that the bureaucracy could not be blamed.
The deterioration in the national finances created a need for ruthless budget repair, as well as some stimulation for the economy. Fraser had pioneered a cabinet expenditure review committee, but the Hawke-Keating one, involving ministers such as Peter Walsh, John Dawkins and Don Grimes, reached new levels of proficiency and effectiveness, as well as becoming the main engine room of cabinet government.
The Department of Finance was probably never as effective in evaluating and reviewing programs and in instilling a discipline in how government spent money.
Hawke had both the honeyed and the vicious tongue, and he was not afraid to mix it, whether with politicians, captains of industry, fellow unionists or the media. Both the political environment (he had been president of the Labor Party before he went into Parliament in 1980) and the industrial relations club were boozy and promiscuous environments, and much of Hawke's reputation as a knockabout larrikin and quintessential Australian came out of those times. There may have been greater sobriety in government, but nostalgics should also remember that it was a spiritually empty decade of private-sector greed and enrichment, abominable fashion (not least Hawke's America's Cup coat), takeover frenzy and, ultimately, a serious recession, even if, as Keating was to claim, it was the recession we had to have. Success on creating new Labor economic doctrines should also not mask failures on the social policy front, something perhaps best illustrated by the failure of Hawke's promise that, by 1990, no child need be living in poverty.
The poverty of our age should not obscure some poverty in times past. But at least we could feel then that most of our politicians, on either side, were fair dinkum and focused on the national rather than the party interest.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.